Suffering: Who Needs It?

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Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.

- Kahlil Gibran

The American Way

Productivity. Certainty. Predictability. Consistency.

These words feel like a cozy blanket to our minds. And, at least since the Industrial Revolution, it has been a shared agreement that these values amplify and support the economy while also offering the average citizen an opportunity to opt into an illusion of safety. It is an illusion because there is no room for true individuality in a society that prizes a sense of safety over all else. There is no room for growth, there is no room for transformation, and there is no room for suffering. Graham Hancock calls this the War on Consciousness, exacted through narrow definitions of permissible states of consciousness (and support of chemicals that suppress consciousness) in support of corporate and governmental control.

Perhaps this is the prison cell that we willingly walk into, sighing with relief as the door locks shut.

In this model, we are meant to be distracted from big picture questions by our day to day responsibilities and frivolous recreation. Physical symptoms are problems that need to go away and psychoemotional symptoms are a sign of inborn disease at worst and feebleness at best. The entire pharmaceutical model of care is predicated on the belief that it is us against our vulnerable, dangerous, broken, annoying body. A body that needs to be chemically managed and put into its proper place of subservience relative to our prized functionality. We are prescribed to suppress and eliminate signs that are actually meaningful messages about our state of dis-ease. We don't ask "why", we don't look to the roots of these symptoms. We just want to get back to work. To feel "normal".

The Body: Machine or Mystery?

The thing is, our bodies don’t make mistakes. They adapt. Adapt. And adapt some more. They work hard to establish equilibrium in an environment that is unpredictable at best. Genes change their expression, receptors increase or decrease, hormones feedback on themselves, circulation gets rerouted. The complexity of these interconnected processes deserves awe and nothing less. We are just beginning to peek through the keyhole of our physiology and it’s incredible.

So, to suggest that the body just randomly messes up is old-school rhetoric. The body reacts to what it perceives and symptoms are the signal from the body that it is imbalanced, in distress, or in need of support.

Sometimes a symptom is even a sign that the body is taking care of a stressor for you and you don’t need to do a damn thing about it but wait and watch. A fever is like this. Labor pains are like this. Diarrhea from that spoiled Mexican food you ate is like this. It is important to listen, watch, and permit these signs and symptoms to play out in many situations because suppressing them only complexifies the issue. Looking to the root of the insult is always helpful in guiding the type of support you offer the body.

In this way, depression and anxiety can be symptoms that are like a throbbing toe. Did you just drop a hammer on it? Is there a string wrapped tightly around it? Is the toenail infected? There’s pain, but what from? What might it mean?

The Science of Psychiatry

If you deign to ask why, psychiatry has a well-rehearsed answer for you: it's your broken brain and your misfiring chemistry! Notably, the guild of psychiatry has reveled in the opportunity to pathologize the human experience with even grief over the death of a loved one, lasting more than two weeks, now a diagnosable disorder.

Despite efforts to focus on the danger of our emotional experiences, the finger is being pointed back at psychiatry to explain why violence and self-harm are documented effects of treatment. Nonetheless, the reflexive, alarmist, even liability-driven urgency to medicate has helped to perpetuate the illusion of treatment necessity and efficacy. We know, since Robert Whitaker's game-changing expose, that we have bought into a convenient truth. This belief, that psychiatric medications are safe and effective, is reinforced by unregulated direct to consumer advertising, pharmaceutical control of the published literature, and by messaging around the action of psychiatric medications. We are told that these medications are "fixing a chemical imbalance" when they are doing anything but. They are suppressing consciousness and creating imbalance.

According to Whitaker, when we look at the escalating rates of psychiatric medication treatment, we have to ask some important questions about its role in the escalating rates of mental health disability in this country (1 in 70 adults) and globally.

He helps us to see:

  • There is no validated science that supports any neurochemical explanation for any of the diagnosable mental illnesses, and such, medications acting on these chemical systems force the body to adapt.
  • This adaptation are likely responsible for the data supporting poorer long-term outcomes in those who have been medicated than those who never were (but presented with the same symptoms) or who were tapered. In this way, a chronic state of symptoms even while medicated, and withdrawal when tapered leads to a psychic holding pen for many patients, potentially for the rest of their lives.

"As investigators confront these dismal long-term outcomes, they are focusing on the possibility that the drugs fail over time because they induce compensatory adaptations 'the opposite of what the medication originally produced.' This, El-Mallakh wrote, may “cause a worsening of the illness, continue for a period of time after the discontinuation of the medicine, and may not be reversible” (El-Mallakh et al., 2011).

So it turns out that medicating your symptoms away may make you sicker in the long term, may engender new diagnoses that beget new treatment, and may rob you of the opportunity to understand why you were symptomatic in the first place.

Like taking a Tylenol for a piece of glass stuck in your foot.

But what I believe to be most insidious about psychiatric medication treatment is the implicit message transmitted to patients - there is no room for what you are dealing with. Hurry up and get it together and get back to your routine. Manage the machine of your brain and be a good patient.

It is the externalization of agency, when the true power for healing and transformation requires the activation of an inner force of awareness.

What's The Point of It All Anyway?

We are here to touch our life's purpose, to manifest our personal truth, and to use our human experience to sit in awe and wonder at this journey. These things don't come easy for most. We are broken open, many of us by tragedy, we see glimpses of our falsely held beliefs, and we come to know fear as a taunting distraction, not as a guide.

Sometimes challenges are exactly what the doctor ordered. Sometimes even tragedy is part of our path. Other times, amazing things turn out to be colossal burdens. We can't pretend to know what's best for us.

In speaking to a patient, formerly on antidepressants, now acutely struggling with a potential divorce, I tried to help her to see that she has been delivered exactly what she can handle, if she chooses to accept it and not to resist it. Resisting is so much more excruciating than just sitting in the suffering and letting it swirl, move, and evolve.

Most of the time, when you sit and watch. When you try to look with curiosity, decisions are made for you and crises morph into new normals.

This process of rebirth is often compared to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar. The stark contrast between before and after, the dark dissolving transition, and the struggle into a grand new existence.

One of my teachers, Joseph Aldo, shared this tale with us in a group this week. He used it to help us appreciate the power of a natural process when witnessed rather than interfered with.

A man found a cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could, and it could go no further. So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon.

The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.

The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.

What the man, in his kindness and haste, did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were Nature’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

A profound reminder, quite literally, of the necessity of natural birth for proper incarnation, both for the infant, and for the mother moving through this gateway to expanded consciousness. Because birth is not just about moving from inside to outside. It is about existential transformation. When we accept the mores of a society steeped in intellectualized, masculine energy, this type of transformation seems scary rather than mystical.

Sit with these ideas, let them plant a seed:

  • When you are struggling, when you feel pain, or even when you feel overly excited or activated, simply note it.
  • Take responsibility for your experience. Don't blame your boss, your genes, or the city you live in. Own it and your reaction to your experience - your perception of what seem like the facts. When you take back control, you become your own best friend, counselor, and doctor, and it is hugely liberating.
  • Commit time to quiet. In this quiet, even 3 minutes a day, begin to simply watch your mind. Breathe in and say silently, "Sat". Breathe out and say silently "Nam".  Meaning "Truth is my name" this mantra will help ground you in this new landscape.
  • Say "yes" to the experience. Accept that this is your experience, knowing that when you accept it, it has the room to change and evolve.

This is your journey, and it's yours for a reason. Take the invitation to walk through the fire of your challenges. We are so much more powerful than we are permitted to believe.

Explore the truth about depression in the grassroots NY Times Bestseller, A Mind of Your Own.

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More